Meet These Two Needs for a Great Customer Experience

Where to look for answers beyond touchpoints and customer expectations

five stars

By Laurence Ashworth

Why do customer experience initiatives so often fail? There are two broad reasons. The first is that many organizations focus on individual touchpoints — a website visit, a tweet, an email purchase, a sales call — rather than on understanding customer experience across the entire customer journey.

The second is that many organizations focus on satisfaction, which can lead organizations astray. Customer satisfaction is certainly important but it’s a particular focus on satisfaction that can actually lure marketers into a certain set of beliefs or mindset that can be counterproductive. They can end up misunderstanding what their customers really want.

Touchpoints Versus Overall Experience

Research strongly suggests that business outcomes are much more closely tied to customers’ overall experience rather than their interactions at any individual touchpoint.

A good way to understand the relationship between touchpoints and overall experience comes from a team of McKinsey consultants. Imagine for an initial touchpoint you have a high probability — say 90 percent — of satisfying your customers. Over the course of subsequent touchpoints, the probability that customers will be satisfied overall will be much lower. The fact is that adding more touchpoints generally makes it more difficult to satisfy customers.

In many cases, added touchpoints serve very little purpose, and could actually increase the likelihood of worsening customer experience. A recent survey of nearly 100,000 customers showed that any individual customer service touchpoint is four times more likely to lead to disloyalty than loyalty.

Despite this reality, when organizations think about improving customer experience, one of the first steps they contemplate is adding touchpoints, not removing them.

A Flawed Focus on Customer Expectations

Organizations tend to have a particular view of satisfaction that drives their assumptions. One of the central assumptions is that to satisfy customers, you should aim to “exceed expectations” — to go above and beyond for customers. This implies that expectations have a negative relationship to satisfaction: as expectations go up, holding everything else constant, satisfaction goes down. This way of thinking rules out the possibility of a positive relationship between expectations and satisfaction: as expectations rise, perhaps satisfaction can rise as well.

Research on consumer behaviour suggests that the relationship between expectations and satisfaction is not straightforward, that it’s not exclusively negative or positive. In one study, for example, people were asked to taste the same type of wine. Some were told that the wine was very expensive, others that it was inexpensive. People who thought they were tasting expensive wine rated it more highly than those who believed they were tasting inexpensive wine. The brain scans of the participants while they drank the wine confirmed that people assigned the “higher priced” version actually experienced more pleasure.

The point here is that expectations do not always have the relationship with satisfaction that we expect them to have.

Besides that, it is very costly for firms to continually exceed customer expectations. For one thing, customers typically come in with high expectations and it is difficult to stay ahead of them. For another, they hold expectations around the core areas of your business. That’s why they come to purchase from you. Trying to deliver your core area of business better than what customers expect of you is about the most expensive thing to try to do. A more useful approach would be to satisfy customers by doing small things for which they have no expectations at all.

Surveys and studies confirm that there is no additional improvement in loyalty once customer expectations have been met. A psychology-based study looked at the consequences of breaking versus exceeding promises and it showed, again, that there’s no advantage from exceeding what you have promised. All of the value comes from meeting what you have promised.

Don’t Forget Customers’ Acquisition Needs

A useful way to approach the challenge of customer experience is to separate out the kinds of things customers try to do when they interact with your organization.

On one side are consumption needs — these capture to what extent your product or service does for customers what they want it to do. On the other side are acquisition needs — all of the customer needs from the moment they consider a purchase right through to the post-purchase period. People want to acquire a product or service in certain ways and want particular things to happen even after a purchase.

Organizations tend do a good job of thinking about consumption needs but do less well around acquisition needs.

Easy Street

There are two central goals in addressing acquisition needs. One is ease: customers want the entire process to be as straightforward and easy as possible. Contrary to what we may want to think, customers don’t particularly care about your business. When you add touchpoints or try to engage customers, you assume they want you to be a bigger part of their lives. For virtually all brands, this is simply not true. Customers want to acquire your core product or service in the easiest way possible.

Organizations can struggle with simplifying their customer journeys. One study found that 56 percent of customers had to re-explain an issue when contacting customer service and 58 percent had to call in after using the “self-service” website.

Making interactions easy for the customer is hard to achieve in organizations with strict silos. Too often, organizational procedures and processes — designed to make life easier for the organization — take precedence over customer experience.

We see this perhaps most clearly in how organizations handle their digital and bricks-and-mortar operations. In many firms, these two channels are run independently. In reality, customers — an estimated three-quarters of them — move across channels all the time, researching online and visiting a physical outlet. They expect a consistent, seamless, and easy experience. It’s a mistake to subject these customers to silos or procedures if you want to create the best possible experience for them.


The other broad goal of meeting acquisition needs is for an organization to show it respects and values its customers. The feeling of being respected is a fundamental human need that shows up at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s one of the primary predictors of how people feel about themselves and one of the variables most correlated with life satisfaction across many cultures. The need to feel respected and valued applies to our daily lives but also to our business relationships and interactions as well.

Need convincing? Consider the results of a comprehensive satisfaction survey of nearly 3,000 consumers, designed to quantify the extent to which respect affects satisfaction over and above traditional factors (such as evaluation of the product or service and customer expectations). The survey found a strong positive relationship between product evaluation and satisfaction; a positive but weaker relationship between service and satisfaction; and a significant but not very strong negative relationship between expectations and satisfaction. The main insight, though, is that respect was second only to product evaluation as a predictor of customers’ overall satisfaction.

Compared to ease across the customer journey, respect may be a customer need that firms find more challenging to consider. But it is certainly something that should be factored into plans for creating experiences that are most likely to create highly satisfied customers.


Laurence Ashworth is an associate professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Marketing at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University.